Why To-Do Lists Are Useless And What To Do Instead

To-do lists make you unproductive. Finding out the single most important thing to do in a day is what you need to do instead.

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Have you ever faced insurmountable odds and sought refuge in a to-do list?

You start writing down what you need to get done. The list gets new lines every minute and very soon you have over two dozen things you need to get done in a day.

Then begins the whittling down. The long journey to cross each and every line in a race to the bottom.

Except, you don’t realize when you’re beginning is that it’s a bottomless pit you’re hurrying towards.

Every time you tick off an item, you realize there’s something else to do or maybe two more things to do.

Each of you reading this post has made a to-do list. For the vast majority, the list didn’t make a dent in their lives. For some, it worked. Lucky you!

It’s so simple in theory, it’s supposed to work. Why does have to fail so spectacularly?

For most of us, including me, to-do lists are emblems of unproductivity. You can’t stare down a list. It only keeps growing.

We Aren’t Sure How Long a Task is Supposed to Take

A testament to the above fact is evident in KickStarter and other sites that list innovative products for crowdfunding. The creators agree on a date and never deliver. They fix another date and miss again. Most famously, startups like GigaWatt that was supposed to revolutionize cloud cryptocoin mining went bust because they could never get their hands on technology they promised users at scale.

Elon Musk has never been on the clock with any of his products. He’s famously failed to produce electric vehicles on schedule.

He tends to underestimate how long something would take time and again. You could argue that this has to do with production issues, failed consignments, and the R&D department being not up to the task.

But isn’t that Elon’s job? And hasn’t he been in the trenches far too long to understand how long a task is supposed to take?

In an interview Elon did with The Washington Post he calls himself an intrinsically optimistic man.

Musk chalks up his string of failures to being optimistic. Perhaps, we too are.

The precursor to any to-do list is assumptions. We assume that a task is supposed to be over and done within these many minutes. We do that for each item in the list and that tables to a gigantic error.

With to-do lists we Never Get to the Elephant in the Room

How many times have you decided to skimp on the most important task at hand to favor less important goals?

Here’s my hypothetical list of tasks for the day.

  • Read and respond to all emails.
  • Get into a skype call with a client for a contract (makes a mental note that this will take 20 minutes)
  • Buy some fresh bread
  • Send 50 cold emails
  • Finish up the article
  • Take the kid to the park

Here two things are most important. First, to finish up the article I am working on and two to send cold emails.

They’re are the most impactful. They bring home the bacon. Fresh bread and taking the kid to the park are nice things but they shy away in importance compared to what I have to do to make a living.

So effectively I am avoiding what I am supposed to do. These are the things I need to positively do. The to-do list prevents me from that.

So what’s the solution?

The solution I discovered works for me every time. It always hits the bullseye.

Before you go to sleep– think of the most important thing you need to accomplish for the day. 

When you wake up, that’s the one thing you’re going to wake up with.

It’s your single most important item you can do to make the day worth its while.

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